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Sunday, March 13, 2005
ProMusica Chamber Orchestra/American Originals
Summit Records

Itís funny: just when youíre ready to write off the Midwest as a cultural desert, you learn about some cool arts institution that makes you wish you could spend an evening in such far-flung locales as Minneapolis, or Austin, or, as in this case, Columbus, Ohio. Now Iíve actually known about the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra since I was a kid growing up in (yep) Ohio, but, sadly, I never attended one of their concerts despite living only forty-five minutes away. They did come to my high school once, however, and it is a pleasure to hear them again, after all these years, on a new CD from Summit Records called "American Originals."

Think of ProMusica as a little Cleveland Orchestra: both are polished, virtuosic ensembles with a stubborn dedication to new music Ė albeit very different kinds of new music. Whereas Cleveland looks to Carter or Birtwistle for new work, ProMusica opts for less radical souls like Michael Dougherty and Peter Schickele. "American Originals" features large works by these latter two composers, as well Barberís "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" and a fizzy fanfare for the orchestra called "ProMusica Sempre!" by David Noon.

One hesitates to criticize this album at all, because, frankly, this is just the sort of project orchestras around the country should be doing. The fact is that Central Ohio has a super ensemble thatís ready to take on the new and old with equal dedication. Such a mission is rare and, when it exists, exciting music making is happening. As a critic reviewing a CD, however, I feel obliged to point out a few things.

Evidently recording in Columbusís Southern Theater isnít the easiest task in the world. In Schickeleís Clarinet Concerto the orchestra sounds like itís in another room, and in the Barber itís the singer who sounds shut out. Fortunately the full orchestral works by Dougherty and Noon sound crisp and fine. Indeed, it isnít until Doughertyís "Tell My Fortune" that one really hears the orchestra, and they attack this rambunctious score with gusto and aplomb.

That said, neither Schickele nor Dougherty do much by way of sustaining and building up tension. The final movement of Schickeleís Concerto is a Dixieland whirligig, but since the other movements are similarly casual and lighthearted, thereís no sense of musical release in its joyousness; the effect is more eccentric than fun. Dougherty is flat-out a better composer than Schickele: his pallet of formal and timbrel ideas is far more abundant, and one never gets the sense heís being coy. But the sudden changes in mood and texture and the super-abundant instrumental solos grow tiresome, and the piece overall sounds distracted. Noonís brief "ProMusica Sempre!" also has too many ideas in its head, but, at only four minutes, the suave melodic lines and percussion punctuations manage to keep the fun afloat.

"American Originals" may have its problems, but ProMusica nonetheless comes across as a triumphant ensemble, one that is certainly doing its part to keep the new music flame alive in Columbus.

 



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